John Colson: Along the river, over the hills and far away |

John Colson: Along the river, over the hills and far away

John Colson
Hit & Run

It’s the day after Christmas, 2017, as you read this, although it’s Christmas Eve as I write it, a deadline phenomenon that often leaves me feeling a little slippery in time, especially if I am writing about some issue that may have changed significantly by the time these words are in print and on the streets.

Of course, that’s not typically the case at the end of the year, when government nearly shuts down in honor of the holidays and reporters buzz around like agitated bees to find someone, anyone to comment on an unexpected event or policy pronouncement that just came to light.

But I’m not doing any of that this year because I’m on the road — or, more accurately, on the rails, heading west on Amtrak, riding alongside rivers and climbing over mountain ranges to hang out with family and friends in California for the holidays.

I’m what they call a train buff, having taken my first trip on a now-defunct train known as the City of Los Angeles when I was 12 years old (this was pre-Amtrak), from Los Angeles to Chicago. I was on my own, returning from a cross-country automotive vacation with a friend’s family (I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, at the time). It was that trip that laid the foundation for what has become a lifetime of despising and avoiding air travel wherever possible, and catching the train whenever it coincides with my travel plans.

Boarding in Glenwood Springs on a clear, chilly Dec. 22, we joined hundreds of others who for various reasons have eschewed air travel in favor of the rails, coursing westward. West of Grand Junction, we followed the Colorado River along the Ruby Canyon stretch into Utah before heading north through Green River, Helper, Provo and Salt Lake City and then west into Nevada, through Reno and over Donner Pass.

You may have heard of the tragedy that gave this pass its name and its fame, back in 1846 when a party of pioneers led by George Donner and James F. Reed were caught by heavy snows in the Sierras and descended into madness and cannibalism.

If you want to learn more about the Donner mess, there are plenty of sources.

For our trip, suffice it to say that as we passed the high-mountain lake near the scene of the tragedy, we were treated to a highly sanitized version of the story by a docent holding forth in the Vista Dome car. He never even mentioned the Donner party’s most famous menu item — each other — as the food ran short and time ran out. Another example of history falling victim to some silly overdose of political correctness.

And speaking of food running short, the farther west we went the more restricted the menu on the train became. I believe that by the time we were cruising down the western slope of the Sierras, about the only things left to eat were hot dogs, old ready-made sandwiches and candy, thanks to fouled up deliveries to the train in Chicago. At least that’s my recollection through the fog of hunger, though my memory may be a little off on that point.

We finally arrived at our destination, the city of Napa, California, located in a part of the state where calamitous wildfires in October killed nearly two-dozen people, torched whole wineries as well as thousands of homes and other structures, and generally left behind a swath of misery unmatched in this state for some time.

As we rode in a limousine from the station at Emeryville to a relative’s home in Napa, we went past some of the recently burnt-over ground and got a quick rundown of some of the more bizarre circumstances that came with the fire.

For example, we learned of an animal refuge in nearby Santa Rosa that was threatened with total destruction by the Tubbs fire, so named because it started near Tubbs Lane. The lane was named back in the 1800s for winery owner Alfred Tubbs, whose own mansion, coincidentally enough, burned down in a raging inferno in 1964, just a year after my aforementioned first trip on a train.

Anyway, the owner of the Safari West animal reserve, Peter Lang, reportedly stayed at the reserve to fight the flames, saying he had “a thousand souls I’m responsible for,” meaning the exotic animals he had accumulated over the years.

The man sent his family away, then hunkered down to face the flames. According to the tale we heard, he and unnamed employees unrolled the garden hose, soaked themselves thoroughly and repeatedly and set about dousing the grounds, the buildings and the animals.

Lang reportedly lost his house, and a number of vehicles that were used as part of the business, but only lost one of the dozens of exotic animals he keeps there — a baby giraffe whose lungs were so scorched by the heat and the flames that it could not survive.

We also learned that the estate once owned by the late comedian and actor, Robin Williams, was somewhat scorched by another of the fires raging in the area, this one called the Nuns Fire. The estate had been sold to French winemakers Alfred and Melanie Tesseron two years after Williams’ death in 2014, and there were no details I could find about how badly the property was burned.

We also heard about the Thomas fire, which has been called the largest fire in the state’s history as it scorches through parts of Santa Barbara, Ojai, Ventura and other locales. According to a relative living in Montecito, a luxe neighborhood of Santa Barbara, at one point there was nearly a fire crew or fire truck in every driveway along one stretch of the community, ready to put out any sparks or errant flames that came their way. I guess wealth does have its perks when fire comes knocking at the door.

Our relatives’ home, thankfully, was spared, unlike the homes (and lives) of so many others whose Christmas and New Year’s Day will not be the cheery events they had hoped for.

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